Small Ball – Are You A Zone Or A Man To Man Coach?

Basketball has been a part of my life for 35 years, ever since I was 9.  I’ve been a part of the coaching scene now for the past 25 years and this is a debate I’ve heard many, many times and it never gets old. I think the first memory I have of it was from the movie “Hoosiers”. Gene Hackman is asked by one of Hickory’s residents if he’s a zone coach or man to man coach because all they ever played at Hickory was zone. Hackman’s character made it clear first practice, he was a man to man coach. In today’s game, I think you should use man whenever you can, but you need to know how a zone works in order to break one properly. I guess you could ultimately say you need to know both.

What type of zone should you use? If I were to pick a favourite it’s quite easy.  1-3-1 full court. One team I coached in the early 2000’s paid tribute to Emilio Estevez and the Mighty Ducks movies by calling it the Flying V. 

I place my players with the best basketball IQ at the back of the zone, closest to our basket. These players are often players who should become coaches later on! They must have the ability to read the offense well and be the best communicator on the floor. They are the eyes and ears of everyone, letting them know where cutters and screens are coming from. The defender at the back has the freedom to decide where they need to position themselves to get a steal. They shade towards ball side, reading where the ball is positioned. This, if done right, should cause the ball handler to question any long passes trying to avoid the trap.

I always place my best on ball defender at the top. They might not be the best or smartest defenders on your team. They don’t have to be. They have to be the team’s workhorse and push their man to one side. It doesn’t have to be the ball handlers’ weakest side, but that’s always the hope. I coach at the small college level, so the weak hand isn’t usually a huge factor. The point guard can usually handle both hands quite well.

The man in the middle needs to be able to move. They need to know the rotations of who goes where on a trap. They need to remember to drop to the basket if the pass goes long to the corners, and on the wing trap . They may have to take over playing the back of the zone from time to time on a skip pass. Therefore, they have to have some basketball IQ as well. They have to be a very strong communicator with a loud voice that can be heard. Overall, you want this man to be a jack of all trades.

Your wing players need to be quick decision makers. They either go for the trap and be aggressive or they fade back to help out near the bucket. If they don’t pick one or the other, they are caught in a “no man’s land” situation and have given the offense the advantage. They’ve taken themselves out of the play by simply doing nothing. While the other players may be rotating great and communicating very well, this simple moment of no reaction by the wing player can bury the whole defence in a hurry. If they choose not to make the decision, it forces me as a coach to make a decision and find a player who will not hesitate to go one way or the other! 

I’m not always looking for a trap or a steal. I’m happy if we change the pace of the game causing havoc and panic with the opponents. Make them doubt everything they’re doing at that moment in the game. Make them feel uncomfortable. Make them completely change their thinking patterns. This works especially well if you can catch them off guard (pun intended). 

Calling for a zone out of a time out is too obvious to me, and after every basket makes things too rhythmic. Have a system in place where your team can change and jump into it at any time. Make the other team adapt to the defense you are using. Not the other way around!


    1. If I HAD to use a zone against a solid 3 point shooting team, I would preferably use a match up style zone something like Syracuse would use. If that wasn’t in our repertoire then I would use the 1-3-1 without a trap in the half court.


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